Before my persistence paid off and I landed the job of Art Editor for Classic & Sports Car, I worked on another Haymarket Production: Racing Line – the monthly in-house magazine for McLaren.
Not a bad life I hear you cry, but in reality there was very limited access to the drivers or team personnel for obvious reasons – they were all too busy – but there was the odd ‘perk’ to be had.
Of course, being design staff instead of a wordsmith, it wasn’t commonplace for me to find myself on a trip but the editor at the time was a generous chap and decided that when we were offered the chance to attend the launch of (then) new Mercedes SLR, it was time for me to pack my bag.
Now I’m not a name-dropper – mainly because I don’t usually have any names to drop (although I did very nearly run over funny-man Rob Brydon the other day while navigating a rat-run in the Beetle!), so please forgive me when I mention that the one and only Sir Stirling Moss was going to be in attendance, having had a long association with the three-pointed-star.
Of course, to a young(ish) art bloke, that was a big thing and so I packed an overnight bag and set off for RAF Hendon on the outskirts of London.
Why RAF Hendon? Well we (myself and the other ‘hacks’) briefly underwent a very vague security check before being loaded into two waiting Harrods-liveried helicopters.
I’d never been in a 'copter before and fortunately am not afraid of flying, but in what seemed like no time, we were touching down in the grounds of a country pile in the Bristol area.
Of course, there was no sign of Sir Stirling yet, and so we were given a very brief press conference about the new SLR before each being handed over the keys to one of these compact two-seaters and informed that we would find a route-map and some cash for the toll-bridge in ‘our’ cars.
In what can only be described as one of the most embarrassing moments of my life, I then sat on the gravel driveway to this great country house watching while the other journalists rubbed their hands with glee and spun off for a nice drive in the sunshine. Why didn’t I follow? Well, I couldn’t get the bloody thing into gear!
Turned out it was an automatic and I’d never driven one of those before. It should have been simple of course, but Mercedes had included some daft, convoluted procedure for letting you engage ‘drive’ and I clearly wasn’t clever enough to work it out. So, tail between my legs, I had to creep back inside the grand house and ask one of the PR bods how to get it going.
Of course, she was very gracious and although I’m sure she had a laugh at my expense behind my back, she was the picture of Germanic professionalism to my face and once the simple fact that I had to put my foot on the brake before pushing the lever towards the big ‘D’ had been explained, I was on my way.
Oddly, she decided to stay in the passenger seat for the entire morning and I don’t think it was because she found me to be good company.
After a hearty lunch though, we returned to the house to find the drive now packed with cars from the Mercedes collection and a table full of car keys.
Still no Stirling of course and I wondered if that was one promise they had struggled to fulfil. Once I’d realized that it wasn’t some slightly twisted ‘key swap’ party though, I stood, amazed that the one car I really wanted to drive still remained unclaimed. Walking towards the silver 300SL, gullwing doors open, the dream continued when a chap handed me the keys and merely said: “Enjoy yourself. See you back in an hour”.
Enjoy myself I did, of course, and I revelled in a fantasy world where this was my car and the outskirts of Bristol became a series of Alpine passes. The hour quickly passed and I returned once more to the ‘pile’, trying not to disgrace myself by having some hideous accident on the loose gravel and as a result wiping out the entire collection of cars present.
I needn’t have worried though as everyone was looking the other way towards a slightly familiar car. Forgive me, but I don’t actually recall if it had the trademark ‘722’ on the side, but there was little mistaking that there, behind the crowd of salivating journalists was Sir Stirling and more importantly, he was making himself comfortable behind the wheel of a rather famous 300SLR.
Astonishingly, we were then told to ‘wait our turn’. Don’t worry, that didn’t mean we were waiting to get our hands on the wheel of the ’55 Mille Miglia winner as well, but the next best thing: Moss was going to take each of us for a passenger ride around the streets of ‘Brizzle’!
When my turn came, I shook his hand, parked my behind where one of my heroes had spent some considerable time and wished I could have instantly grown a ‘Jenks-style’ facial appendage for the full effect.
In an instant we were careering down the gravel drive with him already apologising for having to "take it easy" because the local farmer had complained that he was upsetting his cows. All I can say is that we have very different definitions of taking it easy.
Out on to the streets and, frustratingly, I was so overcome with the experience that I find it difficult to remember much about it.
Except for the one time we arrived at a set of traffic lights that is.
We pulled up behind several other cars waiting for the red to turn green at a large crossroads and waited. Waited for approximately five seconds before Moss raised his hand high in the air, uttered something about the traffic lights “probably broken” and with a smile put his foot down, went round everyone else on the wrong side of the road and down one of the side exits!
Obviously he didn’t want the car to overheat (officer) and visibility was excellent (constable), but I think I was still smiling from that one single movement when we arrived back outside the house.
I say arrived, in truth he was telling me how he’d spent most of the afternoon trying to get "the bloody thing" sideways upon arrival and I’m pleased to say that, because I was the last passenger of the day, he achieved it.
A nice dinner, a good sleep and another helicopter ride home the next day marked the end to my one and only press launch perk, but it’s safe to say I’ve been dining out on it ever since.
Can you blame me?